Novel venues, sporadic crowd numbers and memorable matches
25 August ~ The first legs of last week’s Champions League play-off round were all relatively tight, with Valencia and Manchester United recording the only two-goal wins. Some of the second legs could conclude with the aggregate scores level and those not reaching the group stage bemoaning the ”lottery” of penalty shootouts or the vagaries of the away goals rule. But none of the ten ties will be decided by anything as brutally dramatic as the toss of a coin. And only seismic off-field events could result in something as annoyingly convoluted – or wantonly glamorous – as a third match, an actual play-off.
With the same clubs monopolising the Champions League and the Europa League reduced to a qualifying tournament, us 40-somethings must ask ourselves what exactly was better about continental competition “in the old days”. Real Madrid and Barcelona won everything then too. For me the answer is contained in the February 1962 European Cup quarter-final play-off, in the Parc des Princes, Paris.
Juventus had just become the first side to defeat Real Madrid in the Bernabéu in Europe, this after Real defeated Juve in Turin. It’s a fixture which captures the gloriously romantic ideal on which UEFA’s 21st century cash cows are built. Old style play-offs were singular, unpredicted matches where the ground could be empty or packed, strangely familiar or exotically foreign to both teams.
I’ve seen pictures and YouTube clips. Two Ballons d’Or plus John Charles and Ferenc Puskas provide an exciting 3-1 win for Real. Under the low-lux floodlights, some of the 37,000 Parisians are sitting on the pink cycling track of the old velodrome, where every Tour de France concluded until the 1967 redevelopment of the Parc des Princes.
Not all play-offs went to neutral venues. Rules which didn’t allow for away goals did let Rapid Vienna opt to return to the Bernabéu for the deciding game of their 1956-57 European Cup second round tie with Real Madrid: 100,000 Spaniards at the first leg, and a 50-50 split of gate receipts proved persuasive. The following season, in the same competition, Rapid drew on aggregate with AC Milan. Only 15,000 had turned up at Milan’s San Siro – Rapid lost the play-off in Zurich.
Convention holds that only cup finals are played at neutral venues. So seeing a match from an earlier round, often between two entirely foreign clubs, without any trophy presentation and scheduled on a few days’ notice, is somewhat exotic. Around 63,000 (including members of the Belgian royal family) turned up at Brussels’ Heysel stadium to see Barcelona beat SV Hamburg 1-0 in the third, deciding match of the 1960-61 European Cup semi-final.
This was almost twice the total number of spectators who saw Napoli in three consecutive play-off matches in the 1962-63 Cup-Winners Cup. Defeating Bangor City in the preliminary round then Hungary’s Ujpest Dozsa in the first, before a quarter-final exit to Yugoslavia’s OFK Belgrade, involved extra games in London (Highbury), Lausanne and Marseille. Playing in front of 3,000 on a December Swiss evening might not have felt exotic to the Napoli or Ujpest players. But when glancing through records of European competitions, a third scoreline, often asterisked, denotes a mini sequel – a tie which didn’t go by the two-legged, home-and-away book.
Play-offs, and coin-tosses, were phased out over the 1960s. By the late 1970s Juventus had lost the Fairs Cup final (to Leeds in 1971) and won the UEFA Cup final (against Athletic Bilbao in 1977) on away goals. They’ve subsequently lost and won the Champions League final on penalties.
Post-millennium, extra games are anathema to FIFA and UEFA’s compacted calendars. A 3-0 scoreline is retrospectively awarded to the victims of any pitch invasion, ineligible substitute or missile. So my only play-off experience came in the intervening decades. Aged 15 I watched highlights of Rapid Vienna winning 1-0 at Old Trafford in the 1984-85 Cup-Winners Cup second round – in front of 50,000 Celtic fans. On Friday October 9, 1992 I watched live ITV coverage of Leeds beating VfB Stuttgart in a desolate Nou Camp. The following morning I queued for my ticket to see Rangers in the next round of the Champions League qualifiers. The stub reads “Rangers v Stutgt/Leeds”
Some reference books wipe out the original result of replayed legs. You might never know Celtic initially overcame a 3-1 loss in Austria by beating Rapid 3-0 at a packed Parkhead – scrubbed because a beer can landed on the pitch; or that Leeds stuffed VfB 4-1 at Elland Road but would still have gone out on the away goals rule if Stuttgart hadn’t fielded a fourth foreign player in the days when only three were permitted. Play-offs weren’t always entirely romantic – but, unlike anything we’ll see this week in Europe, they were different. Alex Anderson